As shock gives way to blame, litigation and legislation are never far behind. The refrain is familiar: This must never happen again. But we too easily presume that we can prevent it.
We have no X-rays for a person's soul. We may never know what propelled Cho Seung Hui into a homicidal rampage at Virginia Tech. Perceived betrayal in a fantasy relationship, bullied in childhood, a brain tumor, some deep undiagnosed psychopathology, depression, despair, delusion? The clues are obvious, but only in retrospect.
A university campus is a public space inhabited by thousands of students who move through its classrooms, corridors and dormitories at all hours. Airport-style searches at the university perimeter would require surrounding walls. Metal detectors at hundreds of building entrances would make it impossible to change classes every 10 minutes. And would students and professors want their campuses transformed into neo-Medieval fortresses?
The Virginia Tech massacre was not an act of terrorism — not the suicide bomber in the shopping mall we worry so much about. But like the sniper who killed ten in Northern Virginia five years ago, the attack has created terror, which in turn causes us to exaggerate the risk.
As we mourn the victims at Virginia Tech, it's important to remember that university campuses are safer than the streets that surround them. Statistically, a student is far more likely to die in a car accident driving to school than to be gunned down in class. Sadly, we are forced to confront the fact that not every tragedy has a solution.
Brian Michael Jenkins is a terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.
This commentary originally appeared in Washingtonpost.com on April 18, 2007.